Saturday, February 10, 2018

SpaceX Heavy Falcon Launches Tesla Roadster out to the Asteroids

The SpaceX Heavy Falcon sits on the pad the night before First Flight. All images credit: SpaceX.

In a bold, and risky test flight, SpaceX has created the world's currently-heaviest payload lifting rocket. The Heavy Falcon is basically a center prime stage with two attached Falcon-9 recoverable boosters to the sides. A second stage and payload sit atop the prime stage, which is also designed to land and be re-used. Until Wednesday, the rocket with the most lift was the Delta 4 rocket. The Falcon Heavy can lift a payload of 140,000 pounds to low Earth obit, 58,000 ponds to Earth Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit, and if needed, can launch over 37,000 pounds to Mars.  Only the giant Saturn V and perhaps the Russian Energia, both retired, could lift more.

Blast off on Wednesday afternoon after high winds abated.

The Falcon Heavy lifted off from the venerable Pad LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center. This site was heavily used for most of the Apollo moon launches, followed by Skylab and then Space Shuttle launches. A few years ago, the Space Center signed a 20-year lease with SpaceX. The older tower support structures were removed, and SpaceX built a new tower system with rocket assembly and testing features around the pad. 

The Falcon-9 boosters landed perfectly back at the cape, at almost the same time.

Prior to the launch, Space X executives were keen to remind everyone that this as an extremely dangerous test, and it could fail. But alomst everything went right. As planned, the boosters separated and were remotely-guided down to land vertically at launch pads LZ-1 and LZ-2. These pads were built by SpaceX at the US Air Force's Cape Canaveral range just a little south of the Kennedy Space center. The site was originally Launch Complex 13, which supported testing and launches of the Atlas and Atlas-Agena rockets. Science missions Lunar Orbiter-1 and Mariner 3 were launched from there, as well as several spy satellites. Unfortunately, the prime center stage did not land successfully and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

The StarMan, in its SpaceX designed spacesuit, leaves Earth Orbit on its way to the Asteroid belt.

To confirm the test launch heavy lift capability, SpaceX needed a heavy object to launch into space. In a creative publicity move, SpaceX President Elon Musk donated a car from his personal collection - a Tesla Roadster with the convertible top down. Inside was "Starman" a dummy placed in a SpaceX spacesuit. Cameras on board the car recorded and transmitted images in different directions as the car left the orbit and continued its way out to space- estimated to be an orbit near the asteroid belt. In a tribute to some science fiction icons, a Screen in the car displays "Don't Panic" and the Starman has his space-traveling towel. A miniature Tesla car hangs from the front mirror. And the radio is broadcasting David Bowie's hit "Space Oddity" as long as power holds out.

Click here to watch live views from the Roadster. 
Click here to watch a tribute to the launch of the Falcon Heavy to the music of "Space Oddity".

Dragon Undocks and EVAs mark the beginning of 2018 on ISS.

Dragon cargo spacecraft safely back on Earth on the recovery ship.

Full of returning experiments, science samples, and items for further testing, the Dragon cargo spaceship undocked from the ISS on January 13. Surviving the fiery re-entry, the craft parachuted down to the Pacific Ocean and was recovered by SpaceX teams which will prepare the ship for returning to SpaceX and to NASA.
 Astronaut Scott Tingle prepares for the year's first EVA.
January and February start off with EVAs on the International Space Station. On January 23, astronauts Mark Vande-Hei and Scott Tingle conducted EVA-47 to replace parts on the Robotic Arm. Once outside the airlock, the spacewalkers removed the spare part from a locker on the outside of the station and replaced the faulty part on the arm. Unfortunately there is a software issue with the activation of the part, which will result in a further spacewalk later in February.
Russian Cosmonauts Alexander Misurkin (R) and Anton Shkaplerov (L) prepare to exit the airlock for their EVA.

February 2nd saw the second EVA when cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Alexander Misurka exited the PIRS module to perform maintenance work. This was Misurkin's fourth spacewalk. They successfully moved to the Zvesda module and replaced a faulty electronics box for a high-gain radio communications system. The bad parts were jettisoned towards a burn-up in the atmosphere. This station marked the 207th EVA for maintenance on the spacestation, including both American and Russian spacewalks. Typical for space agencies, this is also known as the Russian EVA-44 spacewalk. I'm not sure that I can comprehend how they keep track of these things when they have duplicate designations... 

Cosmonauts moving about the Zvesda module.

The EVA concluded after 8 hours and 13 minutes, which makes it the longest Russian spacewalk. Coming up on the ISS: A Russian Progress Cargo ship will take off on Sunday Feb. 11, and another US EVA in this coming week.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas visitors at ISS

Soyuz FG rocket lifts off the pad at Baikonur into a wintery blue sky.
On Sunday Dec 17, the second half of the Expedition 54 team left Russia for a two-day chase to the International Space Station. On board the Soyuz MS-07 spacecraft were Soyuz Commander Anton Shkaplerov (Roscosmos), Scott Tingle (NASA), and Norishige Kanai (JAXA). They docked at the station on Tuesday morning. 
Before the launch, at the simulator (L-R): Kanai, Shkaplerov, and Tingle.
This is Shkaplerov's third trip to the ISS. This time he will take over as station commander when the current lead crew returns to Earth. FOr Kanai, though this may be his first spaceflight, he previously made a two-week stay in the seabase off the Florida coast in 2015, simulating communications protocols in a future Mars mission with long signal delays.  Scott Tingle has been a Navy test pilot and also flew as a member of the elite Blue Diamonds demonstration team. He has 54 combat missions to his credit, and joined NASA in 2009. This is his first flight to space. 
Current spacecraft docking locations at the ISS.
November and December have seen a busy schedule of flights to and from the station. The Cygnus resupplu spacecraft arrived on November 13 for a three week stay. After delivering its supplies, the spacecraft undocked on December 6 for a 12 day period of free-flight testing, before entering the Earth's atmosphere on December 18 for a fiery end. During that time it also launched 14 Nanorack Cubesats.
Cygnus OA-8, named SS Gene Cernan.
 SpaceX launched another Dragon supply ship CRS-13 on Dec. 8. This time, both the capsule (C-108) and the Falcon 9 rocket are being used a second time, as part of SpaceX's re-usable spacecraft system. It is currently docked to the US-built Harmony module. 

CRS-13 docked to the Harmony module.
On Thursday Dec. 14, Soyuz MS-05 undocked from the ISS for a return to Earth. In Command of the spacecraft was Sergei Ryazansky (Roscosmos), accompanied by Randy Bresnik (NASA) and Paolo Nespoli (ESA). Bresnik had been Commander of Expedition 53 before leaving the station in the capable hands of Misurkin, commanding Expedition 54. 
Beautiful picture of returning Soyuz capsule over Kazakhstan.
Sadly, it has been reported that astronaut Bruce McCandless II has died. He was made famous around the world for the image of him in the shuttle EVA suit flying tether-free around the space shuttle. Most people are unaware, but he served as Houston Mission Control communicator during the historic moonwalk of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11 in 1969. He also was part of the crew that launched the Hubble Space Telescope on STS-31 in the shuttle Discovery.
McCandless in his official NASA WSS press photograph, strapped into the Manned Maneuvering Vehicle (MMV).
One of the most famous photos of the Shuttle period, McCandless flies free in the MMV during mission STS-41B around the space shuttle Challenger.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

50 Years Ago: Apollo 4 Flight Get US Closer to the Moon

Lift-off of the mighty Saturn V rocket assembly from pad 39. NASA.

After the fire disaster of Apollo 1, tests still continued while lessons were learned and changes were made to the Apollo command and service modules. Possibly faulty wiring and systems in the Apollo Block 1 command modules were redesigned to bring newer, better safety factors in line with program directives. There was still a use for the Block 1 command modules though, and the flight of Apollo 4 was one of them.
Stages being assembled in the giant Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB.

The Apollo 4 mission, also designated as AS-501, was the first mission to start with the Apollo naming protocol. The families and friends of the Apollo 1 fire tragedy had insisted failed test being redesignated as Apollo1.  Three other Saturn test flights had occurred before this mission, but had used the Saturn 1b first stage for the unmanned tests. This Apollo 4 mission had been delayed from its original date in 1966, due to the Apollo 1 Stand-down and the delays in re-wiring and re-equipping the newer Block 2 capsules. Thus it was that this mission would use a still-functional, unmanned Apollo Block 1 capsule as a test capsule to record data during the flight.
The fully-fitted Saturn V stack inside the VAB, in one of the four assembly bays. On a humid day, tiny clouds could form at the very top inside the building.

Roll-out of Apollo4 on the giant crawler and tower transporter, slowly moving away from the VAB.

Apollo 4 in place on pad 39A. The crawler has already unlocked and moved away from the launch base.

 The Saturn V's first stage heaving the rocket into the upper atmosphere.
Liftoff finally occurred on November 9. This was the first flight of the Stage 1C and S-2 second stage. It was the first time NASA had restarted the S-IV-B third stage. The capsule was placed into a high arc to simulate the returning velocity of capsule coming back from the moon. The capsule safely passed through re-entry, chutes deployed, and it landed in the Pacific ocean not far from the recovery ship USS Bennington. It was a hugely important mission, because it proved that the Saturn V could work, and that the systems were in place to get men to the Moon and back safely before the end of the decade.
Apollo 4 capsule ends its trip in the Pacific Ocean.

Apollo 4 command module next to the USS Bennington before retrieval.

The Apollo 4 capsule is on display at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. The hatch is open so that you can see inside.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

October was a Busy Month for Expedition 53

Astronaut Mark Vande Hei on EVA during one of the first two spacewalks in October. (NASA)

While science experiments and observations continue onboard the International Space Station, so does the unending resupply and maintenance of equipment. This month saw the crew perform three spacewalks working on the robotic arm, and a supply mission docking from Russia.
Astronauts Randy Bresnik and Mark Vande Hei making it look easy.

The spacewalk series was interrupted by the Progress docking, so let's start with the October 5th EVA. Expedition 53 Commander Randy Bresnik and astronaut Mark Vande Hei  began the triple EVAs with a 6 hour and 55 minute walk to replace one of two Latching End Effectors (LEEs) on the robotic CanadArm2. The LEEs are designed to grapple objects before moving them. The astronauts also worked on some module insulation and cables.

The next EVA took place October 10th, again with Bresnik and Vande Hei. Over 6 hours and 26 minutes, they worked to lubricate the newly installed LEE, and then replaced a camera system on the end of the arm.

Russian Progress cargo spacecraft approaches the station near an already-docked Soyuz.

Before the astronauts could complete their 3rd EVA of October, Russia attempted to launch Progress 68P to the station to deliver supplies. The launch was scrubbed on October 12, due to faulty  equioment on the launch pad at Baikonur in Kazakhstan. The problem was quickly fixed and a second attempt to launch was more successful on October 14. Instead of flying a shortened 6-hour flight to the ISS, ground controllers used a older 2-day approach plan for the craft. It arrived at the ISS on October 16th. The craft (also known as Progress MS-07) docked at the Russian-made Pirs module. 

Astronauts Mark Vande Hei and Pauolo Nespoli (ESA) help Joe Acaba move into the airlock.
The final EVA of October took place on the 20th, and lasted 6 hours and 49 minutes. They attached another camera to the CanadArm2, and completed some minor work. The EVA made the 5th spacewalk for Randy Bresnik and the 3rd for Joe Acaba,
The next major event for Expedition 53 will be a launch of Orbital ATK's Cygnus supply mission.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Last of the Summer ISS Traffic

Space Voyagers prepare to bard their spacecraft. Top to bottom: Alexander Misurkin, Joe Acaba, Mark Vande Hei.
As we approach the time for summer to transition to fall, one spacecraft arrived at ISS while another took its leave. Soyuz MS-06 lifted off from Baikonur on Tuesday, carrying the second half of the Expedition 53 crew. The Soyuz was piloted by Soyuz commander Alexander Misurkin (Roscosmos), and flight engineers Joe Acaba and Mark Vende Hei both of NASA. Both Misurkin and Acaba are veterans of previous space missions. Vande Hei is making his first trip into space. The crew will stay aboard the International Space Station for five and a half months, eventually becoming the lead half of Expedition 54.

Soyuz rocket departs at night from Baikonur.

The crew joins Expedition 53 Commander Randy Bresnik and flight engineers Sergey Ryazanskiy (Roscosmos) and Paolo Nespoli (ESA). As well as working on over 200 experiments in the next half year, the team is preparing for three spacewalks during October. 
After undocking, the Dragon gently moves away from the ISS before commencing re-entry procedures.
On the 17th, the SpaceX Dragon unmanned cargo ship undocked and was moved awy from its berth by the robotic arm, under the control of astronaut Bresnik. Once at a safe distance, ground engineers fired the descent thrusters and slowed the craft for re-entry. Splashdown in the Pacific off of California took place at 10:14 a.m.  This had been the 12th resupply mission with Dragon for SpaceX.

Space Station parking before the Dragon left the station.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

X-37b Launches before Kennedy Gets Hit by Irma

Falcon 9 rocket with X-37b aboard launches from Kennedy Space Center. (SpaceX)

SpaceX Made a beautiful launch Thursday of their Falcon 9 rocket, this time without their Dragon resupply space capsule. In another first for the company, the US Air Force had chosen SpaceX to lift the secretive X-37b re-usable winged spacecraft into orbit. Normally the Atlas V has been the rocket of choice, but now the military is looking to lower costs and prove the concept of using different boosters. 

An X-37b spacecraft on the runway after landing. Service crew gives a good indication of size. (NASA)

This was the fifth launch of an X-37b. While the Air Force does not announce which of the two spacecraft was in use, NASA reports that the Air Force alternates between the two craft, which would mean this is the third mission for the first spacecraft to fly. The Air Force also does not comment on the expected length or purpose of the mission. Fans of the X-37b will be diligently following any reports by satellite spotters of changes in orbit. 

Damage to the Vehicle Assembly Building after hurricane Matthew in 2016. (NASA)

Shortly after the launch, and then the recovery of the Falcon 9 first stage, the Kennedy Space Center, SpaceX, the Air Force, and other companies located at Cape Canaveral began shutdown and safety procedures in advance of this weekend's hit by hurricane Irma. The hurricane is very wide and although it is set to travel up the length of the Florida west coast, the storm will reach to the other side of the state and could cause damage to structures and equipment. 

For more information on the threat levels used by NASA and the story of how the Space Center prepares for a hurricane, check out the detailed article at NASA